Melbourne by Day: Lunch and Brunch in Australia’s Second City
Just one thing is holding Melbourne back as a dining destination: its location.
Melbourne is a cosmopolitan city with a rapidly developing restaurant scene whose diversity and dynamism is reminiscent of New York and London, only on a smaller scale. It just takes so long to get there. I flew from London last month with Cathay Pacific and spent almost 20 hours in the air (enough time to review the in-flight meals).
Rather than spend the next day in bed recovering, I headed straight out for lunch. Well, three lunches, to be precise. It would be a waste to go all that way and not give it a go. I visited a range of establishments, from suburban bars through restaurants in smart hotels, to late-night spots where you had to negotiate with a bouncer to get a drink.
If you're looking for your own Australian eat-a-thon, here are key places to try while the sun is up. For nighttime spots, look here.
Prepare to queue for up to two hours at night if you want to try the Southeast Asian fare at this barnlike restaurant on Flinders Lane in central Melbourne. It's always packed. There are no reservations, so the best bet is to arrive early or late, aka lunch. I walked in at midday and immediately got a great seat at the bar.
This is the first place where I ate and remains my favorite. I returned for my final meal before heading to the airport. The best dish was the dry red curry of soft-shell crab, snake beans, Thai basil, and kaffir lime leaf (A$33/$26). It packed so much spicy flavor, it should have come with a health warning. The lab gai stir-fried spiced minced chicken—served with lime, ground roasted rice, and iceberg lettuce cups—sounded milder and blew my head off. Light relief came from stir-fried green beans and shredded coconut with a burnt chilli and cashew sambal.
You might go for the buzz—Chin Chin is extremely popular with a youngish crowd—and then stay for the food and the Australian wine list. Chef Benjamin Cooper makes all the sauces, pastes, and relishes in-house. The service is friendly and informal, as it often is in Melbourne. 125 Flinders Lane, CBD; +61-3-8663-2020 or chinchinrestaurant.com.au
Brunch isn't a bad place start the day, and this informal restaurant in South Melbourne is a hot spot. You may have to queue to get in. It's closed in the evening yet manages to cram in as many as 800 people a day at the weekends. The dining room is bright and white, with huge windows.
Popular dishes include coconut milk-set chia seeds with mango, strawberries, blueberries, coconut, maple, macadamia, and local rose petals, which costs A$15 ($11.72). The seeds swell to form something like a mousse, which is then loaded with the colorful fruit. If you are looking for even more exotic fare, how about chili-scrambled eggs with air-dried Flinders Island wallaby, feta, and leaves, at A$18? It's an Australian variant on bacon and eggs. Wallaby, a species of kangaroo, has a creamy flavor with a hint of game.
A focus here is on presentation, with other options that include Robbins Island wagyu steak served in a black (squid ink) bun with seasonal fruit and leaves. I found some of the colors more vibrant than the flavors, but I'd go back. The coffee is a specialty, with a choice of producers and regions. 50 Albert Road, South Melbourne; +61-3-9088-0721 or thekettleblack.com.au
St. Ali Roasters
If coffee is your thing, it's worth finding time to visit St. Ali. Head barista Matt Perger placed first in the World Coffee & Good Spirits Championship in 2014. This rundown-looking South Melbourne venue is like a warehouse, with long communal tables and an uncluttered industrial look. It's open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., 365 days a year, and is generally packed with young people.
The food is typical coffee shop, generally simple, with sandwiches, salads, and burgers. I ordered the St. Ali Royale with Cheese, featuring a 180 gram (6.34 ounce) Wagyu patty (A$22). It wasn't one of the best things I ate in Melbourne—the texture was tight and unyielding—but it was OK enough. But I'd go back for the coffee. 12-18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne; +61-3-9686-2990 or stali.com.au
This unfancy restaurant in Albert Park serves charcoal-grilled steaks and fish along with Balkan specialties. One of the specialties is a Pljeskavica spicy burger dressed with kajmak (cheese) on a bed of cabbage salad (A$29). The food and the wines have both won awards, but the star of Mediterraneo is the owner, Michael Popovic. He's an attentive and entertaining host who welcomes locals and celebrities with equal enthusiasm.
This is a neighborhood restaurant that draws an international crowd during sporting events, such as the Melbourne Formula 1 motor racing and the Australian Open Tennis Championships. Albert Park is a charming suburb with wide streets and beautiful old buildings. It's worth leaving central Melbourne for lunch here. 116 Bridport Street, Albert Park; +61-3-9690-5155 or mediterraneo.com.au
Fancy a pizza? Gradi owner Johnny Di Francesco's Margherita pizza won best in the world at the 2014 World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy. He has a new home in the riverfront Crown complex, on the Southbank. It's a huge restaurant, which means it's not too difficult to get a table to try that pizza, which costs A$21. The base is soft, apart from the blistered and crusty edges. The buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomato, and basil melt into a pool of flavor from which the cheese stretches out as you pull away a slice. I wouldn't have visited if I hadn't been staying upstairs at the Crown Towers, and you may not want to eat in a busy hotel restaurant with a casino. But if you are in the area, this is a fine pizza. 8 Whiteman Street, Crown Complex, Southbank; +61 3 9696 9888 or crownmelbourne.com.au
The Town Mouse
It's a lovely stroll from Melbourne's central business district to the suburb of Carlton, with its quiet leafy streets and beautiful Victorian houses. The Town Mouse had been highly recommended to me, and yet I was still surprised by the quality of its produce and cooking.
You sit on high stools here, or outdoors. The dishes focus on a few good ingredients: The flavors are familiar, yet there is always a twist. The veal tartare with soured cream, horseradish, ginger, and celery (A$15) is topped with fried fermented savoy cabbage for a balance of tastes and texture, sweetness and acidity. Oysters are served with a chardonnay vinegar sorbet and lemon. Heirloom tomatoes come with tofu curd, gazpacho, basil, sesame. It's all so fresh tasting—comforting without being predictable. 312 Drummond Street, Carlton; +61-3-9347-3312 or thetownmouse.com.au
I was in Melbourne to review the Fat Duck and to interview chef Heston Blumenthal. Cumulus Inc. is where he wanted to go for lunch, which is probably as good a recommendation as you will need. This bar and restaurant is situated in a turn-of-the century rag-trade building on Flinders Lane. Chef Andrew McConnell focuses on charcuterie and salads rather than fancy cooking techniques or expensive ingredients.
The dishes we tried included tuna tartare with crushed green-pea salad (A$32). The red fish was cut in unusually large chunks that sat on a bed of green for a salty-sweet combination that was buttery, fresh-tasting, and beautiful. Boudin noir came with smoked tomato and parsley salad, whose richness reminded me of that most famous of London dishes: roasted bone marrow on toast with parsley salad at St. John, a restaurant whose look is similar to the bare walls of Cumulus. Here, maximum flavor is extracted from quality ingredients. The seasoning is always spot on. 45 Flinders Lane, CBD: +61-3-9650-1445 or cumulusinc.com.au
It's a bit of a trek out to East Brunswick, a mixed commercial and residential suburb with a quite different feel from central Melbourne. The first taxi driver dropped me at entirely the wrong place: I had no change for a tram, and there weren't that many taxis driving around to flag down. But it was worth it. Pope Joan is a great place to hang out.
This is a really quirky cafe/restaurant/bar where chef Matt Wilkinson serves unpretentious food of real quality. Breakfast is served all day, with such options as grilled asparagus, Egyptian egg, and spinach purée with goat feta (A$19) as well as a full English fry-up of bacon, apple cider sausage, scrambled eggs, and Joan's baked beans.
I snuck along early in the evening, sat outside, and enjoyed a chicken Kiev (A$26) that was among the best I've tasted. The meat was soft and full of flavor, the crunchy coating was properly seasoned, and the buttery filling squirted out across the table as if I had just struck oil like one of the Beverly Hillbillies. There's also a fine wine list. 77–79 Nicholson Street, East Brunswick; +61-3-9388-8858 or popejoan.com.au
Vue de Monde
I've saved the best for last: Vue de Monde, where I enjoyed my finest gastronomic meals, also offers stunning views from level 55 of the Rialto building in central Melbourne. This would be a great restaurant if it were housed in a basement. Throw in the views, and it's difficult to beat.
Shannon Bennett worked in England under such chefs as Albert Roux and Pierre Koffmann before returning, at age 24, to Melbourne in 2000. He now uses his classical training in the service of Australian ingredients. Snacks may include caramelized duck tongue with Tasmanian mountain pepper and Flinders Island wallaby cured over a salt rock wrapped around a herb cream. The wine list is epic. Tasting menus cost A$200 to A$250.
The kitchen is headed by Cory Campbell, who serves a stunning dish of kangaroo cooked on charcoal with a pear salad. The meat, served rare, is lean, with a strong flavor of game. It's like venison in need of a shower, followed by pampering in a spa. It's stronger than wallaby and more insistent than beef. The salad it's pair with is sprinkled with flowers and looks most polite, though there's a hint of pepper for balance.
Inventive dish follows inventive dish, including flash-fried barramundi collar, with a lemon myrtle salt. You can pick this up and bite through the crispy skin to the soft flesh, which you rip away before politely dabbing your lips.
Simplicity shines as well: Wagyu beef comes studded with salt and is served with earthy mushrooms and the sweetest of onions. The presentation is beautiful in its simplicity and nothing is there just for decoration. To eat this well is a joy anywhere in the world. 525 Collins Street, Level 55, Rialto, CBD; +61-3-9691-3888 or vuedemonde.com.au
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.